Chapter 10. St. John's Chapel

It is with some hesitation that we write this chapter, as being of a climb we have neither done nor attempted. For a long time it was at the back of our minds and we came close to the attempt, so that on one or two nights we debated whether to visit the tower of this building or go elsewhere. Then as one or another of our best climbers had to leave us, it was shelved away and forgotten. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence among all who are supposed to have climbed it, and we have had little response from the half-dozen people whom we have interrogated.

Nevertheless, from our investigations we were convinced that the climb was possible, and therefore had probably been done. This made the silence all the more baffling. One of those wham we suspected of having been in tha party that first climbed it told us that one of the party fell off, and only the skilful belaying of the rope had saved a serious accident. Rightly or wrongly, we decided that this was the cause of the silence.

Two of the best climbers of their respective generations told us that they considered the climb impossible. In each case they found it comparatively easy to reach the top of the windows, fifteen or twenty feet below the top of the tower, but found the overhang which confronted them to be insurmountable. On the other hand, a friend quoted so eminent an authority as the writer of the first edition of the "Guide to Trinity" as saying that the climb was not unduly difficult, and had been done several times, roped and unroped. So we decided to see for ourselves.

The writer obtained written leave from the dean to go up the spiral staircase in the tower "to look at the view". He took a camera and photographed the climb from above, which was not on the whole very helpful. However, the difficulty can be seen in the photograph taken from the ground.

Where the windows on the tower begin to arch over, there is a ledge on the pillars between them. To shift on to this ledge, and then lean back over the top of the window when there is a dearth of hand-holds above, may at first sight appear to be impossible. If it is to be done, the climber must get as high as he can in the window and use the small round window in the apex as a hand-hold. Then, with the other hand, he must get a grip on one of the small ornamental pillars which run from between the windows up to the top.

From the ground, these pillars appear flush with the wall and utterly useless to a climber. It is impossible to see, as one can from the roof, that they are square, with only one edge touching the wall. With the hands and forearms on the incut faces, and his knees gripping on the pointed edges, a man should be able to swarm up fairly easily. The exposure would make it unpleasant, but once he had got from the window to the pillar the climb should be straightforward. Near the top of each pillar is a small gap between the pillar and the wall which should provide an excellent finger-grip.

Besides getting on to the pillar, it struck us that there would be one further difficulty, which does not appear from the ground. This is getting from the pillar, which stops about a yard below the top, through the balustrade. It may not be so bad as it seems, but from the top it looks nasty.

From the ground to the roof of the chapel is within the scope of a moderate climber. Several of our party have done it, and by two different routes. The more usual way is to take a drain-pipe by one of the buttresses, and make as much use as possible of the saint on the battress and the arrow-point canopy above his head.

About fifteen years ago two climbers were on the roof of this building, with the intention of assaulting the tower. It was a winter's evening, and as they struggled up the steep roof up to the ridge they dislodged a number of tiles with an alarming amount of noise. A small crowd gathered by the lamplight in Bridge Street to watch. The climbers, hastily abandoning their designs on the tower (it was to have been an all-night climb), came down again to the "bicycle track", and one of them began to descend to the ground.

Just then the door of the turret banged and a porter came out on to the roof.

Before he came in sight he would have to walk half-way round the chapel, so they had half a minute in which to make themselves scarce. The second man, deciding he had not time to climb down, slipped over the balustrade and on to the out- side of a buttress. The first man hastened his climbing to the point of danger. On the top of the pointed canopy he trusted a stone knob more blindly than he would normally do, and it broke off. He fell twenty-five feet.

By a strange coincidence, he was the person whom such a fall was least likely to hurt. It had long been a theory of his that a climber should know how to fall without hurting himself. In pursuit of this pessimistic ideal, he had been dropping from a height every day for months.

To every labour, its reward. He gathered himself in the air, flexed his knees at the right moment and escaped unscathed.

The second climber, meanwhile, was swinging round the pillar with equal agility each time the porter passed in front of him. He succeeded in escaping notice, and the porter, convinced that they had slipped down the wall like a puff of smoke, went away.

This possession of magic powers which land-lubbers accredit to climbers is often astonishing. A friend of ours --- usually intelligent --- once pointed at the red, unrelieved wall of a prison rising for forty feet without the shadow of a hold anywhere, and asked if is could be climbed. He thought the cracks between some of the bricks were sufficient.

And now for an account of the climb. It appears in the Rucksack Club Journal, 1926, from which we will quote:

"St. Johns Chapel challenges King's in the matter of height, though few would say in beauty, and far overtops all the other college buildings. It is in the shape of an elongated T, with a large square tower rising from the junction of the arms. Three ridges abut this tower at a height of about 80 ft., and from there it rises sheer for another 70 ft. to the balustrade. Fifteen feet above the side ridges, but only nine from the main ridge, a large overhanging ledge completely encircles it. Short square drain-pipes, ending in cast-iron bowls 3 ft. below the overhang, offer a nebulous means of attack from the side ridges. Above the ledge three pairs of louvered windows on each face provide promising going for the next 30 ft. Above that an insignificant diamond-shaped pillar, and the inverted-V mouldings above the windows, end in rosettes below the forbidding overhang of the coping.

"The tower was first attacked by `Jones' and `Robinson'. Having attained the gutter by way of the hall roof, they reached the top of one of the side ridges by climbing the steeply sloping coping at the outer end, of which the topmost rib offers a continuous-grip hand-hold. From the ridge it was easy to swarm up the pipe to the bowl, but the negotiation of the overhang proved exceedingly delicate. It was necessary to work one leg over the serrated top of the bowl, which is only nine inches wide, and flush with the wall, and then to rise to a standing position by the aid of a poor handhold on the ledge above. This, as it earned out, constituted the mauvais pas of the climb. Beyond the edge they did not proceed, as the overhanging heights above appeared at the time completely impassable.

"Circumstances prevented further activity, so that, having heard Jones express the opinion that the top part might go, if surveyed first with a rope from above, some of us decided that an investigation might be worth while, Accordingly we secured, by nefarious means, a duplicate key to the staircase which led from the balustrade to the top of the tower. Judge our joy when we discovered that the sloping overhang of the coping could he negotiated quite simply by the aid of some ornamentation on its under side, which proved an efficient hand-hold, so that one could lower oneself sufficiently to grasp the diamond pillar. Once on this, it was tolerably easy to climb down to a small stance on the capital of the pillar between the windows. There a sensational step brought the climber underneath the arch, and a circular window above the louvers offered a secure if constricted seat. The tower was ours! All that remained was to climb it!

"But here the difficulties commenced --- so, armed with 160 ft. of rope, three of us set out. We decided to make the attempt on the side remote from the court, so as not to arouse dean and porters.

"Arriving at the foot of the stone coping, the rope was donned, and I set off up the 70[degree] slope. Jones may have found it `quite easy', but to us it came as the world's worst sweat; the hand-grip is indeed excellent, though crumbling, but that is all that can possibly be said for it. The second man was so exhausted when he reached the ridge that he almost fell over the other side! The third man gave up half-way and was lowered down. It was obvious that the team was not strong enough to proceed, so, in order not to miss the climb, it was arranged that the other two should lower a rope from the top. Scarcely had they reached the gutter and the rope been thrown down to them, when the beam of a powerful spotlight lit up the chapel. It was a Robert patrolling Bridge Street. The danger was immediate, for were he to arouse the porters we would be trapped, for the gutter ended against the wall of the tower, and is easily reached by porters by means of a staircase on the court side. For long the circle of light zigzagged here and there over the chapel, but it failed to pick out the cramped motionless figure which sat shuddering on the sharp ridge. At last the light went out, but not for long. It reappeared directly below, and recommenced its search. But the others had gone, and seizing a favourable opportunity the figure on the ridge resolved itself into human shape, and slithered down the coping at so great a speed that the smell of burning arose from what had once been trousers!

"A few weeks later another attack was made, again with a novice --- whom we will call Fisher --- a born climber, whose ability to hang on in unpromising situations gave evidence of the true spirit. This time we took the court side, judging porters to be less offensive than Roberts. Once more we found ourselves on the unpleasantly sharp ridge, and at last the drain- pipe rose before us. But the mantleshelf problem of the bowl defeated us utterly and completely; for two hours we sweated and struggled in turn, a wary eye on the porters' lodge the while, but all in vain.

"Even assistance offered by Fisher from above only demonstrated the elasticity of 80 ft. of Alpine rope. Crestfallen and annoyed at defeat by what had already been climbed, we retired as dawn was breaking, and set ourselves furiously to think.

"Six months later our thoughts matured into action. The omens were favourable; a bright moon hung in a cloudless sky; the porters on duty were peaceful and fond of their beds; the dean was reported to be sleeping more soundly than usual. Moreover the key had been mislaid, so that there was now no easy way to the top; it was to be all or nothing.

"We had conceived the idea that a stirrup rope might be contrived to supply the missing foot-hold below the bowl. The plan succeeded admirably, and on the second attempt Fisher attained the long-sought ledge. In a few minutes I had joined him, but without the aid of a stirrup the overhang proved as troublesome us ever, and it was only by the skin of my teeth that I avoided using the rope. Together we surveyed the scene from the narrow ledge --- above us rose another 50 ft. ...

"Once more we continued the ascent, certain now that victory mould be ours. The louvers proved easy going, and I ensconceod myself in a oomfortable niche to bring up Fisher. It was only then that we realised the horrible congestion of the situation, which made it impossible to change positions in the niche. Consequently Fisher was forced to make the awkward traverse out to one of the capitals. As he did this move with perfect ease, I thought he might us well proceed. This was a mistake, as he had not done the climb before, and the first move off the capitals is somewhat tricky and very exposed. The first attempt was a failure, so I traversed out to the opposite capital. The position was very delicate, for both of us had to make the traverse unheld; but all was successful, and with Fisher safely ensconced in the niche I scrambled up to the last pitch. (The correct way of tackling this piece would be for the second man to lead up to the niche, and to avoid the change-over.) The rosette at the top of the diamond pillar provided an effective belay for the last movement --- the whole climb has an ample sufficiency of belays; and a few minutes later both of us stood on the windy lead flats at the top of the tower. ...

"The descent was uneventful, though, through a misunderstanding when half-way down the first pitch, I had the discomforting sight of the whole 80 ft. of rope describing a graceful catenary to Fisher, ensconced in the niche below. And if Fisher, careless, fell when descending the louvers, what mattered it, for he was well held, and had not the chapel tower also fallen?"

The wonderful achievement set out in the foregoing narrative raises same interesting speculations.

First, this climb illustrates better than any other in Cambridge how good climbers will disagree as to the difficalty of a particular piece of climbing. Thus, two climbers who had reached the top of the windows assured us that surmounting the bowl of the pipe was simple. We especially asked them about this particular moment. They did not know each other, neither they nor we had read the foregoing account, yet both were emphatic that surmounting the bowl was easy enough for anyone.

We think we can see the answer here. "Working one leg over the serrated edge of the bowl" sounds most unpleasant. Would it not be easier to work up until the bowl was waist-high and then stretch one hand up? By scrabbling with the feet against the wall this should not be a matter of great strength --- indeed, we have done it on other bowls and can affirm that it is quite easy.

On the other hand, the last twenty feet, which had defeated all previous climbers, did not seem to worry unduly the foregoing writer. He merely refers to the "awkward traverse" on to the capitals, and the move off the capitals as "somewhat tricky and very exposed". The last two words are probably the clue to why so many have failed.

At may be seen, the upper part of this climb is tremendously exposed, and anyone making the "sensational step" on to the capitals of the pillar might well wonder if he could get back again. He might also wonder if the lichen-covered stone would crumble under his feet.[1]

And a very severe climb with a 70-ft. drop may unnerve the most steady climber when he knows it has never yet been done. The first man to achieve it had the comfort of having previously done it on a rope, and therefore knowing it to be within his scope.

From now on, knowing it to be possible, climbers should be able to complete the climb without previous exploration. Yet the least that can be said of it is that it is very severe, and should only be tackled by climbers with considerable experience. We counsel enthusiasts to climb the tower and from the ground to the roof on different nights, and those who are more dramatically minded to write their own epitaphs. To any who tackle it, good luck. If their inspiration is strong enough, they will succeed.



In 1932 there occurred an incident amusing to everyone except the unfortunate porter concerned, on this last pitch.

A friend of the writer, reaching the top of the tower from the inside, had the idea of climbing down a rope for twenty feet to put a white surplice on one of the corner statues. This he succeeded in doing, and the next morning the authorities were faced with the problem of removing the surplice.

A certain rather plump porter very bravely volunteered to be lowered on a rope, and borrowed a sixty-foot length of alpine rope for the occasion. He detached the surplice from the statue, and then called to e pulled up again.

But to their horror his companions found they could not pull him up again, although they could hold him easily enough, the friction of the stone and his unfortunate weight were too much for their pulling powers.

So they secured him to the parapet and went down to find another length of rope. For twenty minutes the wretchod man dangled in space in the company of saints and kings, who increased his sense of solitude. At length the new rope arrived, and he was lowered onto the roof below. We have been unable to trace his subsequent history.